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Cinematic, Beautifully Conducted 'Carmen'

available at Amazon
Bizet, Carmen, A. C. Antonacci, A. Richards, L'Opéra-Comique, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, J. E. Gardiner

(re-released on November 9, 2010)
FRA Musica 004 | 2h50
You may recall reading about this production of Bizet's Carmen, mounted last summer in the renovated Salle Favart of the Opéra-Comique, where this opera was premiered. That institution, which had turned more and more toward music theater -- indeed, this was the first production of Carmen there since the 1990s -- went in an exciting direction with the appointment of Jérôme Deschamps as music director a few years ago, including more productions of Baroque operas with HIP ensembles and their conductors. The idea played out beautifully in this re-thinking of one of the theater's most famous operas, one that has been done and re-done in so many bland versions. Conductor John Eliot Gardiner leads the svelte and expertly honed Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, on period instruments, in a suave but edgy performance, using the new critical edition by Richard Langham Smith. It includes some sections routinely cut from the score, like the conclusion of the soldiers' opening scene, and prefers the original dialogue over the recitatives added later.

Anyone who thought they would never hear a fresh musical take on Carmen should think again. Gardiner takes a daring approach to the music, pushing tempi in both directions and ignoring most of the commonly heard rhythmic manipulations while adding new ones. All sorts of unexpected colors rise out of the pit, especially from the quirky wind instruments, and the singers of Gardiner's exquisite and responsive Monteverdi Choir are nothing short of stunning, both musically and dramatically, in the choral parts. Gardiner has a fine partner in the direction of Adrian Noble, who comes to opera from the Shakespearean theater tradition, conceiving the action with a cinematic eye, including some convincing slow-motion scenes.

The only reservation holding back a full recommendation of this still rather expensive DVD is the casting. There is certainly no trouble with Italian soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci, who sings with such dramatic force, her character propelled by equal parts sexual desire and misanthropic disgust. Few have made this role quite so -- and so properly -- ugly. Things go down quickly from the top of the bill, however, with the Micaela of Anne-Catherine Gillet wavering in tone, often short of the pitch on the flat side, the Don José of American tenor Andrew Richards plagued by often terrible French pronunciation and a less than heroic (and in tune) top range, and the leathery Escamillo of Nicolas Cavallier. This means that this version is not likely to please anyone looking for a single DVD of Carmen -- the 2008 Covent Garden release (Decca), also with Antonacci but with the added benefit of Jonas Kaufmann, is more likely to please more traditional operatic tastes. Still, for the location, the conducting, and the production this makes for a must-hear comparison to challenge one's assumptions about the Carmen you thought you knew.

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